The internet is awash with a thousand fluffy articles aimed at would-be job-seekers: “Tips for Tightening Your Resume”; “How to Shine in an Interview without Casting a Glare”; “Soft Skills—Do YOU Have Them?”
But at the heart of them all is the same desperate question: What do these people WANT from me?
At times, it can seem like half the stress of job-hunting comes from struggling to see yourself through someone else’s eyes (and the other half comes from trying to psychically read their thoughts).
Luckily, employers generally want the same things, and understanding these motivators can help you comprehend what will make a hiring manager hit reply, or delete.
This is one of the first things a prospective employer will notice about you, and it’s also one of the hardest to fake. Soft skills are those little intangibles that ensure you can play nice with others: things like communication, teamwork, adaptability, critical thinking, and creative problem solving.
A lack of soft skills sticks out in a job interview like a sore thumb—and if you don’t have them, you’ll stick out, too. Here’s why soft skills matter and what you can do to improve them:
- Why employers care: Lone employees win battles, but teams are what win wars. The stronger a team, the stronger their output, and nobody likes working with a jerk. If you possess strong soft skills, you’ll be able to help your team come to solutions as well as arrive there yourself in other situations.
- How this affects you: Brush up on your people skills. Nobody’s perfect, and everybody’s got room to improve. Don’t know which of your interpersonal skills need work? Try candidly asking friends and family on Facebook. Chances are they’ll be all too happy to tell you.
There’s a reason we mentioned soft skills above, but hard skills, especially those having to do with new or novel technologies, are becoming increasingly obsolete. Anybody with a decent WiFi connection can teach themselves a new skill or piece of software in a matter of minutes (or hours).
Competencies, however, are another matter altogether. They’re how guys with fancy PhD’s in management science refer to broad groups of skills united around certain professional and behavioral tendencies.
So what’s the difference between a skill and a competency?
Operating an automobile is a skill.
Safe driving is a competency.
Coding in C++ is a skill.
Guiding complex team-based coding projects through, from start to finish, is a competency.
Broadly speaking, competencies are skills in action. They show an employer that you not only have the expertise to do something, but that you know how to apply that expertise diplomatically in the workplace—in a way that is practically and professionally useful.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Why employers care: Skills are easy to teach. Competencies aren’t.
- How this affects you: Emphasize what you can do with your skill set first, and then drill down into the specifics of what that skill set entails, and why that makes you a fit for the job.
Matching the Culture
It’s hard to fit in if you don’t fit in. Every workplace has a different vibe, and when that vibe is inconsistent, it can make for rough sailing—and it can cause hiring managers to push you away.
While diversity is important in any workplace, it’s also critical that everyone be generally on the same page, possessed of the same ideals, and working toward the same goals. If you’re a 50 year-old print journalist used to a steady salary and a cozy office, working with a team of twenty-something bloggers in a broom-closet might not be right for you.
Here’s why it’s important to match the culture:
- Why employers care: Having a strong, unique company culture isn’t just a nice perk—it’s also good business. It increases employee retention, improves the quality of job applicants, and a whole host of other unseen benefits. For an employer trying to carve out a unique workplace culture and business identity, those who don’t fit the bill might find themselves being gently nudged toward the door.
- What this means for you: Don’t apply to companies that give you that weird feeling. Don’t apply to jobs you think you’re going to hate. Even if it’s not your rainbows-and-unicorns dream job, strive to find work with a company whose values (and heck, employee demographics) align with your own. You’ll be happier for it—and so will they.
Crawl a job-board for 10 minutes, and you’ll find dozens of postings asking for “X years” in a given industry, or “equivalent experience.” But what does that mean? What’s “equivalent” to a year, really? And why put a time-based requirement at all, if it doesn’t really matter?
Because despite pleas to the contrary by frustrated job-hunters, experience does matter. Experience separates the applicants who could do a job, maybe, from the ones who have already done that job (or are doing it, right now). Experience seasons employees. It lets them see the long-term effects of their actions and understand the cycles that drive a workplace.
When a job-posting says they want experience, what that actually means is, “We don’t want people who don’t have experience.”
Luckily, evidence shows that the “years in” requirement is flexible. Experience isn’t so much time on the clock as it is notches on one’s tally of career-growth.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Why employers care: Given a choice between an employee in need of training and one who can hit the ground running in an hour, the latter is the smarter business decision almost every time.
- What this means for you: Get some experience under your belt—not just time in, but projects seen through from start-to-finish. If no one will give you opportunities to gain professional experience, then find ways to create experience on your own, whether by freelancing, volunteering, or working independently.
A Strong Personal Brand
It’s no longer enough just to follow the beaten path. With a growing skills gap between higher education and the workforce, employers are less concerned with what fancy piece of paper you’ve got hanging on your wall. Instead, they are increasingly interested in what you’re doing out there on your own. Applicants with a distinct identity, freelance experience, and a social media presence stand out from the crowd—and those who lack them make hiring managers nervous.
Important facts about developing a strong personal brand:
- Why employers care: Having a strong personal brand and a good social media presence in your industry helps to show prospective employers that you’re not just a name on paper: You’re a force to be reckoned with.
- What this means for you: Start a Twitter feed. Make a Tumblr account. Start blogging. Connect with peers and colleagues on LinkedIn, and ask them to endorse you for the skills you claim to have. When a prospective employer googles you, don’t let them find nothing. Let them find a cornucopia of evidence supporting the notion that you’re the right one for the job. At the same time, make sure you delete your “college brand” if you have one, and keep all wild-child posts off the Internet. There are a hundred and one reasons why alcohol and drugs can hurt your career, and employers don’t want to have to deal with your personal problems.
Competencies speak of what you can do. Experience speaks to how much you’ve done it. Accomplishments are the yardstick by which experience is judged. Accomplishments are your answer to the questions, “What have you finished? What have been the fruits of your labors? What have you gotten done, and what did it all mean?” Here’s why these matter:
- Why employers care: Nobody wants a piker. A confident body of accomplishments demonstrates a worker who goes above and beyond, who is capable of self-assigning personal goals, and who takes those goals seriously. People with achievements take pride in their work, and people who take pride in their work are harder workers.
- What this means for you: Unless you’re an absolutely mediocre employee, chances are good that you’ve got some accomplishments buried in your resume already. Think back, and try to remember work that you’ve finished, projects you’ve completed, achievements or accolades that you’ve won. Then dig them out and bring them to the surface. If you’ve been featured online or in print, add it to your accomplishments or portfolio, or bring it up in the interview. Someone else thinking you’re note-worthy is sure to get your potential employer thinking the same.
The Hard Truth
At the end of the day, no hiring manager is interested in taking on a charity case. The job will inevitably go to the applicant they feel is most capable of doing it with the least amount of training.
If you know that’s not you, then don’t waste your time trying to massage the truth. Instead, seek to change the equation. Lay aside job-hunting. Go out into the world, and improve your foundation. Gain skills. Build competencies. Network. Freelance. Create experience for yourself, and strive to achieve your own personally-defined accomplishments.
Why will employers hire you?
Because you’re the best fit for the job, and because you’ve put it in the time and effort to make sure that’s true.